Nebraska State Capitol

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Nebraska State Capitol
The Nebraska State Capitol
LocationLincoln, Nebraska
ArchitectBertram Goodhue
Architectural styleArt Deco
Governing bodyState of Nebraska
NRHP Reference #70000372[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 16, 1970
Designated NHLJanuary 7, 1976[2]
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Nebraska State Capitol
The Nebraska State Capitol
LocationLincoln, Nebraska
ArchitectBertram Goodhue
Architectural styleArt Deco
Governing bodyState of Nebraska
NRHP Reference #70000372[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPOctober 16, 1970
Designated NHLJanuary 7, 1976[2]

The Nebraska State Capitol, located in Lincoln, Nebraska, houses the primary executive, judicial, and legislative offices of the U.S. State of Nebraska.

Dimensions and features[edit]

The structure is anchored by a three-story, 437-foot (133 m) square base. This square base houses offices most frequently visited by the public. The second floor (main floor) is home to the Nebraska Supreme Court, the Nebraska Court of Appeals, and the Nebraska Legislature.

From the center of the base, a tower rises 362 feet (110 m), crowned by a gold-tiled dome. The spire—The Sower and its pedestal—add an additional 32 feet (9.8 m) to the building’s height. Common measurements list the capitol at 400 feet (120 m), making it the second-tallest U.S statehouse, surpassed only by the 450-foot (140 m) Louisiana State Capitol.

As the tower was intended for expansion of the Nebraska State Library,[3] the 17-foot (5.2 m) tower floors were originally designed to include loft-like stacks for book storage. By 1925, with government increasing in size, the State of Nebraska decided to redesign the tower to house offices. Tower floors continue to house various offices today.

In total, there are 15 full floor stories in the capitol (three mezzanines also exist within the tower). The 14th floor, Memorial Chamber, is the highest publicly accessible level. At this level, four observatory decks offer views of Lincoln from 245 feet (75 m) above the ground.

The Capitol is sometimes illuminated various colors to honor causes.[4]

Chapter 27.56 of the Lincoln Municipal Code[5] places height restrictions on structures within the designated Capitol Environs District. This code helps to maintain the capitol’s title as the tallest building in Lincoln. The capitol held the title of tallest building in Nebraska until 1969 with the completion of the 478-foot (146 m) Woodmen Tower in downtown Omaha. With the completion of Omaha’s 634-foot (193 m) First National Bank Tower in 2002, the capitol became the third-tallest building in Nebraska.

The building was designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who drew upon Classical and Gothic architectural traditions. It was constructed between 1922 and 1932, of Indiana limestone.

Capital cities, capitol buildings[edit]

With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Congress officially opened Nebraska Territory. Almost instantly a factional divide between North and South Platters arose over the question of capital location. Much to the chagrin of the South Platters, Acting Governor Thomas B. Cuming, selected the small northern village of Omaha City for the seat of government. As Cuming was an Iowa man, and as his political allies were investors in the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company, Omaha as capital would be beneficial to his personal political career. But seeing that the more populous South Platters would be able to legislatively remove the capital to the south, Cuming rigged the territory’s first census giving North Platters greater political power, along with the promise of keeping Omaha as the capital.

In Omaha, two structures served the Territory of Nebraska. The first was a two-story brick building donated by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company. This building, formerly located on 9th Street between Douglas and Farnam, served the 1855 and 1857 legislatures.[6] By the 1859 legislature, however, a more proper capitol was built on Capitol Hill (the site of the current Omaha Central High School). This building served as the seat of government through the first session of the state legislature in 1867—the legislative session that resumed the question of capital location. By the end of 1867, the small village of Lancaster would claim the capital title and would be renamed Lincoln.

Lincoln was named for President Abraham Lincoln, though its naming was the result of a clever political ruse rather than in honor of the Emancipator. In 1864, three years before Nebraska was admitted to the Union, political controversies became very intense over the reapportionment issue. After this had been settled, the storm renewed its fury about the relocation of the capital. The North Platte faction--that is, people living north of the Platte River--which included the large delegation from Omaha, used every stratagem and dodge they could think of to keep the capital in that city; while the South Platte group was equally determined to locate the seat of government somewhere south of the River. After numerous amendments, offered to delay action, had been steadily voted down by the South Platte party, the bill for relocation of the capital finally passed the House and was taken up by the Senate. In the Senate was a Senator Reeves, from the South Platte faction, who hated President Lincoln. Senator Patrick of Omaha, a member of the opposing camp, knew of Reeves prejudice against the President, which caused him to make the teasing motion that the now capital's name be changed from Capital City to Lincoln. His amendment passed both houses, much to Reeve's chagrin and Patrick's delight.[7]

In the city of Lincoln, there have been two previous capitol buildings. Completed in 1868 and 1889 respectively, both had structural problems and were razed. The 1889 building was a classical design by the architect William H. Willcox.


The legislature authorized the Capitol Commission to be responsible for the construction of the building. The commission included the governor, the state engineer, and three commissioners appointed by the governor. The appointed commissioners were W. E. Hardy of Lincoln, W. H. Thompson of Grand Island, and Walter W. Head of Omaha. Samuel R. McKelvie, Charles W. Bryan, Adam McMullen and Arthur J. Weaver each chaired the commission as governor.[8]

Gold-colored dome atop octagonal stone tower; stylized thunderbirds on sides of tower just below dome; bronze statue of someone sowing seed by hand on top
Capitol's drum with band of thunderbirds, gold-tiled dome, and The Sower

The architectural competition program was written by Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball, then president of the American Institute of Architects. The competition guidelines were innovative because they did not define plan, style, or material for the building. The program did specify, however, that they wanted an architect who would assemble a team (including sculpture, painter, and landscapist) to create a unified appearance. The Commission chose well-known architects to enter the competition anonymously for a three-judge panel. Firms competing included Paul Cret and Zantzinger, Borie and Medary; McKim, Mead, and White; H. Van Buren Magonigle; John Russell Pope; John Latenser & Sons; and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.[9] Goodhue was selected as the winner. His design exemplified the Classical principles of austerity, abstract geometrical form, and hierarchical arrangements of parts, but did not use columns, pediment, or dome.

The capitol is often considered the first major expression of what has been termed Goodhue's "freely interpreted classical style". The cross-axial plan is similar to a traditional Catholic church or cathedral. The building's four wings radiate from a central domed rotunda, architecturally separating the parts of government. The unarticulated windows and flat surfaces anticipate modern skyscrapers. It is also the first U.S. state capitol with usable tower space.


Preparation for construction began in the early 1920s with the building of a railroad from Lincoln’s Burlington yards to the statehouse block. The electric line ran from 7th to 14th Streets along H Street. The state-owned spur created an easy means for delivery of construction materials. Then on April 15, 1922, Governor Samuel R. McKelvie broke ground, thus beginning the first phase of a four-phase construction process that would last a decade.

First Phase, 1922-1925: After groundbreaking, the north and south sections of the square base were built around the former capitol allowing state operations to continue inside. This saved the state money in temporary off-campus rental. With completion of first phase building in late 1924, the state moved its offices from the old capitol to the new. Then in 1925, the previous statehouse was razed.
Second Phase, 1925-1928: Construction continued with the completion of the east side of the square base, along with the north, east, and south arms of the inner cross. The tower was also constructed to the 6th floor—the level above the main rotunda.
Third Phase, 1928-1930: The tower was completed. On April 24, 1930, thousands of spectators gathered around the west side of the capitol to watch the ascent of the tower’s spire—The Sower.
Fourth Phase, 1930-1932: The west side of the square base and inner cross were completed.
Landscaping/Furnishing, 1932-1934.

The 10-year construction process cost the state $9,800,449.07, funded by a special assessment tax. The building was paid off by the end of construction.

Integrated Art Program[edit]

Reconstruction of an ammonite by mosaicist Hildreth Meiere

The sculptural elements of the building were designed by sculptor Lee Lawrie. Hartley Burr Alexander, a Lincoln native and professor of philosophy, served as "thematic consultant." It was Alexander's influence that resulted in the strong American Indian symbology, despite the wishes of Goodhue, who was from the East Coast region. He felt that the incorporation of Indian designs into the Capitol would make the building look like a tipi and would therefore be "ruinous to the architectural design". However, in April 1924, two years after groundbreaking, Goodhue died. The sudden death of the architect allowed Alexander to exert greater influence over the artistic designs, and thereafter Indian images were incorporated.

The building has an elaborate iconographic program. The large square base is emblematic of the quarters of the Earth and the historic course of human experience. The vertical tower symbolizes the heavens and more abstract conceptions of life derived from historic experience. The massive balustrade flanking the main stairway is ornamented with bison inscribed with American Indian poems translated artistically by Alexander. Over the entrance is a gilded frieze showing the "Spirit of the Pioneers." Other exterior sculptural ornaments include a series of friezes depicting the history of law from the Ten Commandments to a celebration of Nebraska's statehood. Ten great lawgivers, Minos, Hammurabi, Moses, Akhnaton, Solon, Solomon, Julius Caesar, Justinian I, Charlemagne, and Napoleon are depicted emerging from pylonic masses. The eight ideals of culture represented by Pentaour (dawn of history), Ezekiel (cosmic tradition), Socrates (birth of reason), Marcus Aurelius (reign of law), St. John the Apostle (glorification of faith), Louis IX (age of chivalry), Isaac Newton (discovery of nature), and Abraham Lincoln (liberation of peoples) are also represented.

The tower is crowned by a golden dome with a 19-foot (5.8 m) sculpture of The Sower, by Lawrie, which faces northwest (most of Nebraska is north and west of Lincoln). The dome is symbolic of the sun, and its reflective surface changes color with the weather. The frieze around the drum depicts thunderbirds, an American Indian symbol of thunder. Altogether, the golden dome, Sower, and drum represent weather and agriculture. More symbolically, they are an homage to the civilizations of yesteryear, such as the American Indians, Egyptians (The Sower is modeled after an Egyptian), and European settlers who created productive farmlands and propagated life around the world.

East Chamber doors

Hildreth Meiere, a New York-based tile and mosaic designer, working with Alexander, was responsible for much of the original interior design. She collaborated closely with the Guastavino Company of New York to create the elaborate tile vaulting, which is both structural and decorative. Buffaloes, corn, wheat, sunflowers, and wild native animals motifs are repeated throughout the building’s ornament. The theme of Meiere's work is nature and the cultivation of the prairie.

For the decoration of the east chamber (the original senate chamber) Alexander sent Meiere numerous samples of Plains Indian art. Specifically, Alexander sent Meiere photographs of the work of Amos Bad Heart Bull, known to Alexander as Amos Bad Heart Buffalo. Alexander was in possession of these works until they were interred with the artist's sister at her death, but he had the Bull's ledger book drawings photographed and published. Meiere used these images as inspiration for her designs, especially with the large tapestry that graces the east Chamber.[10]

The doors to the East Chamber, designed by Lee Lawrie and executed by Keats Lorenz of Lincoln, are a product of master craftsmanship. The doors weigh more than 750 pounds (340 kg) each, and took Lorenz more than six months to carve. They commemorate the cultural contributions of Plains Indians. Augustus Tack completed the building's earliest fresco-style murals. Ernst Herminghaus was responsible for the landscape architecture.

The majority of the models for the sculpture program were created by Lee Lawrie, and executed by Edward Ardolino's stone carvers in situ in Lincoln. Alesandro Beretta, employed by Ardolino's firm, was the actual craftsman that carved all of the 18 History of Law panels, using as many as 70 different tools. He would often take as long as ten weeks per panel. The carving was completed in November 1934. The Nebraska Capitol job was Lawrie's largest commission in his nearly seventy year-long career as an architectural sculptor.



  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ "Nebraska State Capitol". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  3. ^ * Hoak, Edward Warren and Willis Humphry Church. Masterpieces of American Architecture: Museums, Libraries, Churches and Other Public Buildings. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. pp.115
  4. ^ "Capitol to be dressed in green". Lincoln Journal Star. 4 April 2014. Retrieved 7 April 2014. "On Saturday and Sunday, the Capitol will be illuminated in green light to help raise awareness of Money Smart Week, a public awareness campaign designed to help consumers better manage their personal finances.
    The long-term goal of Money Smart Week, which is organized by the Nebraska Financial Education Coalition, is for all residents to achieve long-term personal financial health."
  5. ^ Lincoln Municipal Code
  6. ^
  7. ^ Nebraska Federal Writers' Project. "Nebraska Folklore Pamphlet Number 14." August 1938.
  8. ^ "Program and Commission Statement". Nebraska State Government. January 16, 1920. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  9. ^ "Program and Commission Statement". Nebraska State Capitol website. Retrieved 2012-09-10.
  10. ^ Kinsler, Carolyn. (1999). "Native American Influences in the Nebraska State Capitol." unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°48′29″N 96°41′59″W / 40.808090°N 96.699587°W / 40.808090; -96.699587